Why Flash Drives Are Still Everywhere – The Atlantic

Why Flash Drives Are Still Everywhere – The Atlantic

At different moments, different unremarkable technical objects seem to evoke that same feeling: that one can’t have too many. These days, the things that seem to turn up all over the place—lurking in pockets of different bags, filling drawers, and junk boxes, dropped down the back of desks—are USB flash drives.

They’re everywhere. There is almost certainly one within ten feet of you right now. I seem to acquire them unceasingly—they’re handed out as promotional tchotchkes, used to provide meeting minutes and conference proceedings, and presented in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and configurations. They have become inescapable elements of the contemporary technological landscape.

The second irony, given how overwhelming the speedy pace of technological advancement can feel, is how primitive the technology on which USB flash drives rely actually is. The challenge posed by the flash drive is to find a way to work seamlessly and easily with every computer. Its solution is a technology known as the “FAT filesystem,” a system—named for its primary data structure, the File Allocation Table—that was developed as a means to manage early floppy disk storage units. Pretty much the simplest imaginable mechanism for representing data on a disk, it was speedily developed and deployed in Microsoft’s almost-ubiquitous BASIC programming system in 1977.

Although it has long since been displaced by more advanced technologies, those other technologies have frequently incorporated a version of FAT into their DNA. Some version of that same FAT filesystem has lived on, locked away inside the more advanced systems that allow for the use of today’s much larger, speedier storage technologies. When people rely upon the FAT filesystem, they’re plugging into an evolutionary throwback, like some kind of vestigial tail. It’s the lizard brain of your computer.

The flash drive exposes the great lie of technological progress, which is the idea that things are ever really left behind. It’s not just that an obsolete technology from the year of Saturday Night Fever still lurks unseen in the dank corners of a shiny new MacBook; it’s that it’s something that is relied upon regularly. The technology historian Thomas Hughes calls these types of devices “reverse salients”—those things that interrupt and disturb the forward movement of technology. They reveal the ugly truth that lies behind each slick new presentation from Google, Apple, or Microsoft: Technical systems are cobbled together from left-over pieces, digital Frankenstein’s monsters in which spare parts and leftovers are awkwardly sutured together and pressed into service. It turns out that the emblems of the technological future are much more awkwardly bound to the past than it’s comfortable to admit.

Richard Muller’s answer to What will be the most important unintended consequence of smartphone adoption that we haven’t seen yet? – Quora

Richard Muller’s answer to What will be the most important unintended consequence of smartphone adoption that we haven’t seen yet? – Quora


George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, was based on the mistaken notion that high tech would always be so expensive that it would be controlled by the government. Modern smart phones are simply the latest and greatest innovation that make it increasingly hard for totalitarian governments to continue to fool their people.

1984 contained the foremost prophecy of the cold war era, the message that Stalinism was unstoppable, and all individual liberty would be lost. The year 1984 became a symbol of future anxiety, and many feared its arrival with the same dread that people of the dark ages felt as they approached the end of the first millennium, when the world was predicted to end. I’m old enough that I read 1984 in 1960; I recall the slow approach of the year 1984 and the concern that was strongly felt at that time.

Orwell’s error was remarkably simple and easily identifiable: he assumed that advanced technology would always be expensive, and therefore affordable only to the state. It was an assumption shared by virtually every prophet and science-fiction writer, but it has proven to be wrong. A surprisingly large fraction of high technology has become cheap. As late as the 1970s, the driving force for electronic technology was the military; now the military has difficulty getting the electronics industry to pay attention to their needs, since they are small compared to the consumer market. The cheapness of photography and printers have made them an alternative to the printing-press; most of the books I read on my Kindle. Few of us can even count the number of computers we own, because we don’t know how many are hidden in our microwave ovens and our automobiles. But it is the technology of information and communications that has really made tyranny unworkable, and may soon make it obsolete. This is the true technology of liberation.

To be sure, technology has introduced problems. Like anything else that is out of control, it does not always lead us where we want to go. But at a time that technology is frequently under attack, it is worthwhile to think about its role in spreading truth. It has proven to be too cheap to be directed by governments. It was not Stalinism, but the spread of information that proved to be unstoppable. If, in fact, democracy does spread across the world, let us not forget to notice this contributing force, led (I predict) by the smart phone and its progeny.

Note: this essay draws heavily from one I wrote in 1991 (I own the copyright, so I freely take paragraphs from it) which still appears on my personal website,www.muller.lbl.gov. It continues to be relevant today.

I don’t know if there’s a uniform Mozilla position on this, but here’s mine! :) … | Hacker News

Source: I don’t know if there’s a uniform Mozilla position on this, but here’s mine! 🙂 … | Hacker News

I don’t know if there’s a uniform Mozilla position on this, but here’s mine! 🙂 The main reason I care about the Web is because it’s the world’s biggest software platform that isn’t owned. If someone can deliver their app to the world without submitting it for review by an app store and without paying a company a %-age of the revenue, and if they can market it through the viral power of URLs, then they have a lot more control over their own destiny. That’s why I think it’s important for the Web not to give up on hard but solvable problems.

But also I think there’s a false dichotomy between “the Web should just be for documents” and “the Web should just be for apps.” The Web is simultaneously an application platform that blows all other platforms out of the water for delivering content. First, there’s a reason why so many native apps embed WebViews — despite its warts, CSS is the result of hundreds of person-years of tuning for deploying portable textual content.

But more importantly, you just can’t beat the URL. How many more times will we convince the entirety of humanity to know how to visually parse “www.zombo.com” on a billboard or in a text message? It’s easy to take the Web for granted, it’s fun to snark about its warts, and there’s a cottage industry of premature declarations of its death. But I personally believe that the humble little hyperlink is at the heart of the Web’s power, competitive strength, and longevity. It was a century-old dream passed on from Vannevar Bush to Doug Englebart to Xerox PARC and ultimately to TBL who made it real.

The Echo From Amazon Brims With Groundbreaking Promise – The New York Times

The Echo From Amazon Brims With Groundbreaking Promise – The New York Times

[The Amazon Echo] is opening up a vast new realm in personal computing, and gently expanding the role that computers will play in our future.

Digital pioneer, Jaron Lanier, on the dangers of “free” online culture

Digital pioneer, Jaron Lanier, on the dangers of “free” online culture

Jaron Lanier, a keynote speaker at the WIPO Conference on the Global Digital Content Market from April 20 to 22, 2016, is a Silicon Valley insider, a virtual reality pioneer and one of the most celebrated technology writers in the world. But he is increasingly concerned about today’s online universe. He explains why and what it will take to turn things around.

What are your main concerns about the digital market today?

We have seen an implosion of careers and career opportunities for those who have devoted their lives to cultural expression, but we create a cultural mythology that this hasn’t happened. Like gamblers at a casino, many young people believe they may be the one to make it on YouTube, Kickstarter or some other platform. But these opportunities are rare compared to the old-fashioned middle-class jobs that existed in great numbers around things like writing, photography, recorded music and many other creative pursuits.

Economically, the digital revolution has not been such a good thing. Take the case of professional translators. Their career opportunities have been decreasing much like those of recorded musicians, journalists, authors and photographers. The decimation started with the widespread Internet and is continuing apace. But interestingly, for professional translators the decrease is related to the rise of machine translation.

Automated translations are mash-ups of real-life translations. We scrape the translations made by real people millions of times a day to keep example databases up to date with current events and slang. Elements of these phrases are then regurgitated into usable machine translations. There is nothing wrong with that system. It’s useful, so why not? But the problem is we are not paying the people whose data we are taking to make these translations possible. Some might call this fraud.

All these systems that throw people out of work create an illusion that a machine is doing the work, but in reality they are actually taking data from people – we call it big data – to make the work possible. If we found a way to start paying people for their actual valuable contributions to these big computer resources, we could avoid the employment crisis that otherwise we will create.

So what needs to be done to ensure a sustainable digital economy?

The obvious starting point is to pay people for information that is valuable and that comes from them. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but the basics are simple and I am sure it can be done.

Some sort of imposed socialist system where everybody is the same would be ruinous. We should expect some degree of variation. But right now a handful of people – those inheriting traditional monopolies like oil and the increasingly powerful big computer networks – have a giant chunk of the world’s wealth and it’s having a destabilizing impact. While an oil monopoly might control the oil, it won’t take over everything in your life, but information does, especially with greater automation.

If we expect computers to pilot cars and operate factories, the employment that is left should be the creative stuff, the expression, the IP. But if we undermine that, we are creating an employment crisis of mass proportions.

That’s where IP comes in. The general principle that we pay people for their information and contributions is critical if we want people to live with dignity as machines get better.

But IP needs to be made much more sophisticated and granular. It needs to be something that benefits everybody – as commonplace as having pennies in your pocket.

It is the only future that gives people dignity as the machines get better.

IP is a crucial thread in designing a humane future with dignity.

How would you like to see the digital landscape evolve?

I would like to see more systems where ordinary people can get paid when they contribute value to digital networks; systems that improve their lives and expand the overall economy.

Economic stability occurs when you have a bell curve, with a few super-rich people and a few poor people but most people somewhere in the middle. At present, we have a winner-takes-all situation where a few do really well and everybody else falls into a sea of wannabees who never quite make it. That’s not sustainable.

You are supporting the Conference on the Global Digital Content Market that WIPO is hosting. Why is that?

IP is a crucial thread in designing a humane future with dignity.  Not everybody can be a Zuckerberg or run a tech company, but everybody could – or at least a critically large number of people could – benefit from IP.

IP offers a path to the future that will bring dignity and livelihood to large numbers of people. This is our best shot at it.

Who are your heroes and why?

There are many, but they include:

  • J.M. Keynes,  he was the first person to think about how to really manage an information system.
  • E.M. Forster for The Machine Stops, written in 1907, which foresees our error with a very critical eye.
  • Alan Turing, who stayed a kind person even as he was tortured to death.
  • Mary Shelley who was a keen observer of people and how they can confuse themselves with technology.

And of course my friend Ted Nelson. He invented the digital media link and was perhaps the most formative figure in the development of online culture. He proposed that instead of copying digital media, we should keep one copy of each cultural expression on a digital network and pay the author of that expression an affordable amount whenever it is accessed. In this way, anyone could earn a living from their creative work.

What is your next book about?

Dawn of the New Everything: First Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality is a memoir and an introduction to virtual reality. It will be out soon.